New laws set stage for NH’s possible transportation future

Measures pave the way for commuter rail study, autonomous vehicle testing

Don’t expect anyone to take a driverless Lyft to a Manchester train station, but there are two new laws that might pave the way for that reality.

Although that future might be years away, the laws – setting up a commuter rail study and a regulatory framework governing autonomous vehicles – went into effect in September. The state Department of Transportation seems to be speeding down the track to develop the rail study, but the Department of Safety seems to be a bit hands off when it comes to testing driverless cars.

The idea of commuter rail from Lowell, Mass., to Nashua and Manchester has been studied for years. But Senate Bill 241 would allow a final development study before rail – if found to be financially and politically feasible – can go ahead.

The bill, which passed roughly along party lines, was allowed to become law without Gov. Chris Sununu’s signature, reflecting his ambivalence toward the proposal. When running for office, he called commuter rail a boondoggle, but then touted the possibility in the state’s failed bid to lure Amazon to the state.

The new law allows the use of federal highway funds to develop the development phase of the project. It went into effect on Sept. 18, but even before that the state DOT had already met with its Massachusetts counterparts as well as the Metropolitan Boston Transit Authority, to see if they have some materials that would in the setup of a statement of work, so it could put out a request for proposals to hire a consultant.

“We want to be ready to go to construction should the state be able to secure the funding,” said state DOT Commissioner Victoria Sheehan. And to secure the funding, “we have to advance the design to compete for any grants. This will take some time.”

Sheehan expects that it will take nine months to select a consultant for a two-year contract but is hoping it could be completed in a shorter time frame.

Sununu signed SB 216 into law on Aug. 2, after the measure breezed through the Legislature. But either the Safety Department is doing very little to implement it or isn’t talking about it.

The bill doesn’t allow for driverless cars, but it establishes a testing program and provides requirements for automated vehicles deployment down the road. It also establishes an advisory commission.

The bill requires the department to establish the test program within 90 days of Sept. 1.

Under the law, anyone who wants to test an automated driving system has to submit an application to the department. At first, the car, would have to have a test driver in it, but the bill does have a section that regulates cars without a conventional driver that goes into effect by July 2021.

When asked what the department is doing to implement the new law, spokesperson Michael Todd said it was working with the Legislature to schedule the advisory commission’s first meeting. Todd did not respond by deadline to a follow-up question asking what the department was doing to set up the testing program.

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